Officials Debate Doing Away With New Orleans' 9th Ward

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Four decades ago, after the waters of Hurricane Betsy poured in and killed 81 people, residents rebuilt the [9th] ward's shotgun houses and "doubles," with their distinctive front porches painted pink, purple or tropical blue.

This time, federal officials, academics and others question the wisdom of trying to rebuild once more. They say the ward and other low-lying areas should be returned to their original state as marshland, to act as hurricane buffers protecting a smaller city occupying only the higher ground.

The debate, which touches nerves of race and class, rankles those who see the ward as an integral part of the city's history and soul.

"You can't have the city as we know it without the 9th Ward," said state Rep. Charmaine Marchand, who has no doubt the area will begin to rebuild once power is restored in three to six months. "People all over the city come from there. It's in the style of cooking and the way people talk."

The region's heaviest accent, a second cousin to Brooklynese, sprang from the working-class Italians, Irish, Germans and freed slaves who began inhabiting the former cypress swamp in the 1870s, historians say. In the 1960s and with the advent of school desegregation, whites fled "the Lower Nine."

The neighborhood, a low bowl of land on the city's eastern end, is bordered by the Mississippi River, the parish line, a set of railroad tracks and the Industrial Canal, which separates it from the rest of the 9th Ward.

It is home to rhythm and blues legend Antoine "Fats" Domino, jazz trumpeter Kermit Ruffins, 100 churches and 20,000 people, about a third living below the poverty line.

On Wednesday, Mayor C. Ray Nagin declared his support for rebuilding the hard-hit ward, but he expressed doubt whether the levee along the Industrial Canal is safe enough to allow people to move back.

[Editor's Note: This is a very short excerpt from a much longer article. Please see the Houston Chronicle for more.]

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